From France, with love

By Kuldip Nayar

WHEN Le Figaro, a leading French paper, frontpages the story on President K.R. Narayanan's visit to Paris with the headline, "An untouchable at the Elysee Palace," it is pertinent to ask what is the matter with France? Is it oblivious of the derogatory meaning the word 'untouchable' carries or is it meant to be a condescending remark to suggest that a hick has come to occupy the highest position in India? Both observations are hurtful. The first one reflects a thoughtless act, the second a patronizing attitude. The apology by Le Figrao Chief Editor makes amends for the offensive headline. Yet, it does not correct the impression of a sense of superiority emanating from a society, which gave the world the slogan of liberty, equality and fraternity.

But why blame France? India is the real guilty party. The manner in which the elite or the upper castes parade the small progress the untouchables, the dalits, have made betrays a haughty attitude. The President underlined it when he gave vent to his feelings before the journalists returning with him from France. "I have lived with this kind of behavior from the Indian press for the last three years," he said. There was pain in his voice and he was visibly moved when he uttered the words. He was replying to a question by a journalist, who wanted to know when the controversy over the headline in Le Figaro would end. "It all depends on the Indian media," the President said. "How long would you want to flog the horse?" I recall how the Indian press wrote endlessly after Narayanan's election in 1977 that a dalit had been elevated to the position of President. Hardly did anyone refer to his merit or the qualifications he possessed. Le Figaro was no worse.

It is, however, a pity that an inept headline somewhat diverted attention from the successful visit. By any standard, Narayanan's was a tremendous job. He did India proud by putting across its stand with dignity and discretion. Whether it was a discussion with the President and the Prime Minister of France or with the intellectuals, what stood out with his poise and his command of facts. Narayanan talked about China with as much ease as about Russia. The French appreciated his foresight. I cannot imagine any other person in the country measuring up to him for the exalted position he occupies. Lest anyone should take him as a rubberstamp, he made it clear to a question at the intellectuals' gathering: "I have my own agenda." Indeed, he has.

It is clear from the way in which he has underlined the privations of the have-nots in the country. I have often wondered whether his program was composed only of an amorphous mixture of leanings, sentiments and emotions or did he have a definite end in mind? Was that the end of the firming-up of the traditional capitalist system or did it seek to transforming India into a socialist state? I found the answer when Narayanan jolted the French Prime Minister by quoting Karl Marx who, according to him, said the bourgeoisie would spread all over the globe and make a mess of it. They were talking about globalization. Both ultimately settled on a non-exploitative order. Terrorism was the one topic, which Narayanan took up with the President and the Prime Minister of France separately. Neither was as forthcoming as expected, although Paris has proposed a Convention on the Suppression of Financing Terrorism. When Narayanan mentioned the cross-border terrorism to the French President, he passed on the query to his foreign minister. He, on his part, spoke about the meeting with the Pakistan military ruler Pervez Musharraf in Paris. Although France downgraded Mushrraf's visit by not letting him meet either the President or the Prime Minister, he seems to have left a pleasant impression on the rulers. They consider him moderate and modern and feel that he is capable of fighting against the fundamentalists in Pakistan. Narayanan's specific proposal to set up a joint working group on terrorism, as India has constituted with the US, was noted by the French Prime Minister. He did not make any commitment but promised to talk to his President. Obviously, France is still to make up its mind because the statement it issued on the visit of Narayanan contained no reference to terrorism. France does not seem to be so much focused on restoration of democracy in Pakistan. There was a reference during the discussions but it was far less categorical or persistent than that of President Clinton. France is a pragmatic country. This was reflected even in its reaction to India's explosion of the bomb. Paris was against any sanctions and did not impose any. It wants India to sign the CTBT. But it respects New Delhi's argument on building a consensus on the subject. It may be willing to install nuclear plants to generate power. France may have been conscious that Narayanan's visit was ceremonial. But it used the opportunity to convey that it sought close friendship with India. The French President said openly that 'France loves India.' So did his government's statement. It was repeatedly said that France wanted India to be a member of the Security Council. Paris appreciates the importance of India in the effort to make the world multipolar; instead of it's being unipolar with America calling the tune. France is still focused on China but the spell is breaking. If not the corporate sector, at least writers, philosophers and artists are being stirred by India.

A strong, democratic India is seen as a bulwark against China's communism and West Asia's fundamentalism. New Delhi's technological and industrial potential is beginning to attract attention. "I place you above China because you have a far more sophisticated manpower than it has," said a leading intellectual, who studies both India and China closely. Paris is naturally keen to sell its airbuses to the Indian Airlines and Air India. The plane, as such, has been cleared by our experts and the government's okay is being awaited. Both the President and the Prime Minister of France requested Narayanan to exert pressure on his government to purchase the airbuses. His reply was that it all depended on the price. It was obvious that France was willing to negotiate the price and even offer a loan. What France buys from India may help clinch the deal. In two months' time, Paris will head the European Union (EU). How much access New Delhi has to it will determine the depth of relationship. EU shares 29 per cent of world's economy as compared to 25 per cent by America. No doubt, the economic relationship will bring India nearer to France or, for that matter, the West. But every visit _ this time as a member of the delegation accompanying the President _ convinces me that the problems in the West are different from ours. Their attitudes are also different. In fact, they are a different people. The rule of law is ingrained in them and civic sense is their second nature. Their schools in villages have teachers and even far-flung hospitals doctors. People are safe in the remotest area.

Unlike us, they have solved their basic problems _ of nationality, integration, destitution and population. There are no private senas, no review of the constitution, no sectarian appeals. Narayanan had to concede at a meeting that religious overtones are beginning to appear in Indian politics. And a population of 350 million below the poverty line even after 52 years of independence shows that the country has a long way to go. EOM

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